Part and parcel

Eleanor Mills, 04.04.2018
Being Brunel reflects the brilliance and opportunism of the engineer himself
Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the prolific 19th-century engineer, apparently chucked a half-eaten sandwich out of one of his new steam locomotives as it pelted down his newly engineered Great Western Railway from London to Bristol.

“That’s where I’ll build my new locomotive workshed,” he said, which is how Swindon came to be.

A purely anecdotal story that is probably not true, but an example nevertheless of Brunel’s imaginative opportunism, aside with his great grasp of how to make things happen, fast.

The new Being Brunel museum has recently opened in Bristol, next to the museum-ship SS Great Britain, and true to form is also an example of jumping at a brilliant opportunity.

The museum staff have historically been based in an old workshed on the dockside, next to the ship, but not anymore. When an extremely valuable collection of Brunel related objects, including his cigar case with “last” cigar in it, came to light a few years ago, the museum’s director Matthew Tanner and his staff leapt at the chance to take advantage.

Being Brunel is the result.

The venue tells the story of the man and his thinking, his triumphs and failures, his workers, his demise, and all the while encouraging visitors to see the world through Brunel’s eyes. And it’s all built with the great Victorian sense of grandeur without glossing over any detail.

And that old shed that the staff used to work in is actually Brunel’s old drawing office, which has been converted back to what it looked like when he worked there, including an accurate re-creation view of how the docks appeared then.

Unbeknownst to Tanner when work on site began, the dockside shed he used to work in was vastly unstable and about to crumble under his very feet. Aptly enough, a lot of complicated engineering work had to be arranged to stabilise the building, namely 40 piles each 20 metres deep.

Tanner and the team have created an involving, fun museum experience – what was a slightly crumbly old drawing office has now expanded into a fact-filled and admirably quirky venue about the making of the man and his phenomenal creations.

Much more glamorous than Swindon (a museum interactive hints at the story), but built with the same nature of opportunism, the museum is a hit already. I look forward to visiting again, which you can do with the annual entry ticket that every visitor buys, though Museums Association members go free.

Watch out for the forthcoming review of Being Brunel in the June issue of Museums Journal – I’m deliberately not revealing all here.


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Jonathan Gammond
Access , Wrexham County Borough Museum
23.04.2018, 22:24
I have heard good reviews already on the grapevine.